Symbols Help Us Think Different

Rev. Mark Stephenson, Director of CRC Disability Concerns



Imagine that Faith, who has gluten intolerance, visits a church that is serving communion. Faith wonders whether she will be able to partake, and then sees that the church offers gluten-free bread. The symbol of gluten-free bread  offered with regular bread says “Welcome” to Faith.

Have you seen the new symbol on the accessible parking* signs at the seminary? The most common symbol for accessibility (on the left) features a medical image of someone in a wheelchair—lifeless, helpless, passive. Non-disabled people tend to look at people who have disabilities that way, seeing need without recognizing capability and giftedness.

A new icon (on the right) pushes that stereotype aside. The needy stick figure makes way for a person leaning forward, arm in the air as if to push wheels that are already in motion. The new symbol was developed by a Gordon College philosophy professor, Brian Glenney, in collaboration with a Harvard Design student, Sara Hendren.

Glenney explains, “I realized that this [passive] representation was actually part of my own real perception of this population, and I didn’t think I was the only one. So the Accessible Icon Project began as a way of correcting this perception by re-imagining the symbols we use to represent people with disabilities.”

The new icon is gaining wide acceptance. The city of New York has decided to replace all instances the old icon with the new one.

Our words and symbols both reflect and influence our thinking. Gluten-free bread says “Welcome” to Faith. The new accessible parking symbol says, “We recognize that people with disabilities are capable and gifted.”

*Many people with disabilities take offense at the words “handicap” and “handicapped”, even in the phrase “handicapped parking.” Better words to use nowadays include “disability,” “disabled,” and “accessible”.